Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is Amazing

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is why I play videogames.

Well, I mean, you know. Not like, the only reason or anything. But I mean, this game is fantastic. This game capitalizes on everything New Super Mario Bros. DS did not and expands on it as well.

First of all, this game is no cakewalk. There is difficulty! And not cheap difficulty where stuff comes from offscreen and kills you - this game uses clever level design to trap you. The levels are usually built in such a way to utilize whatever the particular gimmick might be. The first two worlds basically introduce all the new power-ups - the Penguin Suit (a refined, more fun version of the blue turtle shell from NSMBDS), the Ice Flower (let's you freeze enemies, then either use them as platforms or pick them up and throw them), and the Propeller Suit(lets you have a huge boost to your jump once per jump). These power-ups are actually fun, too! Not boring and stupid like the Mega Mushroom from NSMBDS.

So I'm in World 5 right now, and the two levels before the mid-castle were tough. I died like ten times - which I'm fairly certain is more than I ever died in the DS game. And I was happy to do so! I'm glad Nintendo has finally relocated their collective testicles and made a game intended for a wide audience not be such a freaking cakewalk.

What's that? Wide audience, you say? Yeah, they intend for this game to be sold to a lot of people. There is a multiplayer component, you see, and it is not insubstantial. Anyone can play at any time in the main game - meaning your girlfriend or whoever can join in and be Luigi (or one of the Toads if you have more than one girlfriend, you dog, you) as you play!

Guys, guys - it works.

I've done it. Skill level is irrelevant here, too - my girlfriend is pretty good at videogames (and sure showed up my cousin at NSMBWii, as I tried multiplayer with him first), and didn't have too much trouble up until the second world, where there are these sand spout things you have to stand on to get by. She was slightly intimidated by them - so I said screw it, picked her up and carried her to the end of the level. Done! We resumed the next level and went on. You can do that at any time - if one player is better at a particular obstacle than another, they can just pick up the other guy and go for it. And if someone dies? They reappear in a bubble and can just pick up where they left off as long as everyone on the screen doesn't die. To be honest, I never thought multiplayer Mario would work. But it does, and it is so much fun.

And the fanservice! This game perfects the art. It isn't incredibly self-referential - there are plenty of new ideas here - but there are throwbacks to all sorts of awesome things. Yoshi is back - and he works just like he did in Super Mario World (although without being able to sport different powers if he eats different Koopa shells, unfortunately). The Koopa Kids have returned, as well. In fact, the game really feels like the true sequel to Super Mario World. There's no cape or anything, but I just get this general feeling like that is what they were going for. I'll probably elucidate further on that later, though.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth Initial Impressions

So for Christmas, my mom got me a set of Scrubs DVDs that I had already seen, so I opted to take them back. I then decided to download Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth since I noticed it came out today and I had been looking forward to it.

And I'm impressed! The music sounds like it was programmed for the Genesis - and I mean programmed well. It isn't as tinny as you might expect, either. The song selection seems mostly new - I didn't recognize too many tunes, which is also unexpected - I guess I thought that they would just remix a bunch of old songs like they usually do.

The level design is really impressive as well. The difficulty curve is almost perfect. The first few levels aren't tough, and they teach you the mechanics very well. The enemies all have a very recognizable pattern - bosses included.

The game isn't perfect, of course. It is apparently pretty short - not a surprise, though, since this is a traditional level-based Castlevania game. It is meant to be replayed, as evidenced by the multiple paths through each level. Also, when you pick up a new subweapon, you are forced to get rid of your old one, regardless of whether you want to or not. Though they had the ability to pick up your old one in Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night (and several others), they don't have that here. It is very annoying when, say, you'd like to keep your boomerang but accidentally pick up a knife because you're jumping and happen to whip a candle and pick the item up unintentionally.

But boy - I've heard these other Konami ReBirth games have been received pretty well, and I must say, I'm very impressed with this one. Mega Man 9 really set the tone for all these companies, and I'm thankful for it - keep giving us new games in the old school style that don't suck, please!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Majora's Mask: Unapologetically Unsettling

(As I've been pondering why Spirit Tracks isn't as good as previous Zeldas, I found this old blog post I wrote for my blog over on 1up earlier this year - March, to be precise. Why I posted it there and not on this blog I'm not sure. But I'm putting it here because I'm very proud of it. It's a long read though, and kind of pretentious. But who cares. Enjoy.)

This article contains HUGE SPOILERS about Majora's Mask – you have been warned!

It is evident immediately upon starting Majora’s Mask that this game is nothing like any other Zelda game. The previous Nintendo 64 Zelda, Ocarina of Time, opened with a calm horseback ride with pleasant music. Yet here, after the eponymous mask itself spins onscreen, the player is shown a curious character known as the Happy Mask Salesman holding the mask aloft much like Link would when he finds a treasure – but rather than play the familiar Find Item tune, you hear the man oddly chuckle. The introductory video to the game’s locale then begins with cheery music, showing a typical day in Clock Town, its residents going about their business. Once the time of day in the video changes to night, however, the player is shown the Skull Kid, the main enemy, wearing Majora’s Mask, and the music plays a snippet of the disturbing Skull Kid’s Theme while the camera pans out further to reveal a deranged looking moon. It is at this point that the game’s title appears, to drive the point home that this game is going to be a rather unsettling affair.

Once a file is created and the game proper is started, the opening video lays out the back story. Link has become a legend in Hyrule, and is in search of a “beloved and invaluable friend” – Navi, apparently, judging by the fairy sound that is heard immediately after that text appears on screen. Link is then shown for the first time, riding Epona through a foggy forest (the Lost Woods, perhaps? It is never made entirely clear). He appears to have been riding for a long time, as he is slumped in his saddle and generally looks tired. Epona stops and Link looks around, presumably to try and get his bearings, when two fairies startle Epona, who knocks Link off her back. The Skull Kid wearing Majora’s Mask then appears out of thin air and tells the fairies they did great, and wonders if Link “has anything good on him.” The Skull Kid then goes up to an unconscious Link and robs him of the Ocarina of Time, and attempts to play it. While he does that, the personality of the two fairies are first revealed. The purple fairy, Tael, has a personality very similar to Navi from Ocarina of Time – positive, curious, and nice, whereas Tatl seems to be the opposite – negative, impatient, and kind of a bitch. At this point, if the player tries to guess which of these fairies will be journeying with them, it is safe to think that most of them probably assume the upbeat Tael will be coming, because they are used to the personality of that fairy given the fairy they had during the last game. But as the player will soon discover, the nature of the game necessitates that it will of course be Tatl.

At this point, Link wakes up and attempts to catch the Skull Kid, but fails – the Skull Kid steals Epona and rides off, but Link is able to grab one of Epona’s legs. Link falls off as the Skull Kid rides into a door in a tree stump, and the player is given control of Link for the first time. Link follows the Skull Kid into the doorway, and falls down a deep dark hole. He lands on a pink flower, and the Skull Kid, along with the two fairies, is floating before him. It laughs, and tells Link that he got rid of his “stupid horse” – forcing the player to ask, “What happened to Epona?!” Then, he makes fun of Link (and by extension, the player) for being sad at this notion – “Aw, boo hoo – why the sad face? I just thought I’d have a little fun with you.” Then, the Skull Kid starts to do something to Link, and as he does so, it appears Link is in great pain. Then a very blurry sort of dream sequence is shown where Link is surrounded and chased by Deku scrubs. When Link comes to, he has been transformed into a morose-looking Deku scrub. This scene mirrors the scene in Ocarina of Time in which Link awakens after pulling the Master Sword out of its pedestal for the first time to find himself to be seven years older. But the difference this time (besides the end result of the transformation, of course) is the tone. In Ocarina of Time, when the player first discovers they have aged and are now an adult, the player is meant to feel empowered and excited to try out the older Link’s abilities – here, the player feels confusion and is likely put off by this transformation. This is a great example of the way Majora’s Mask subverts expectations. The Skull Kid leaves, and Tatl hits Link, preventing him from giving chase. The door slams shut, and Link and Tatl are left in the room. Tatl begins yelling at Link, blaming him for being separated from Tael and the Skull Kid, and tells Link to open the door for her.

Tatl is an important character to analyze. Remember, the beginning of Link’s journey was to find his upbeat fairy partner from Ocarina of Time, Navi. Link finds a fairy, but again, rather than the happy, energetic, nice one, he gets the opposite – a mean, impatient bitch of a partner, who berates everyone she talks through throughout the game (even her brother, the fairy Tael). One of the most famous lines of dialogue from the game is when she tells a NPC “Oh my. I pity you,” and offers no further comment on their plight. It’s interesting to note that Tatl and Midna from Twilight Princess share many personality quirks, although admittedly, Midna is much more fleshed out in her game (out of necessity, really – Midna is much more important to the story of her game than Tatl is to hers). Thus the dynamic Link shares with Tatl is completely opposite from the last fairy he partnered with.

So, after learning to fly using the pink Deku Flowers, Link goes through a twisty hallway similar to the one in the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time, and finds himself in Termina. Note the name; throw an L at the end and you’ve got Terminal – doesn’t imply a very cheery place, does it? Link starts out in Clock Town, named for the giant clock in its center. Once Link exits the clock tower, the ever-ticking clock is first shown at the bottom of the screen. This is the central conceit of the game: Link has three in-game days to complete his adventure, which translate to about a half hour of real time to a day of game time. If he doesn’t save Termina within the three day period, the giant moon shown in the game’s title screen crashes into Termina and, well, terminates it. Of course, since Link quickly gets his Ocarina of Time back, this means that every time he plays his the Song of Time, he goes back to the beginning of the first day – while only keeping key items he collected throughout that particular three-day period. All events revert to their original state when he goes back in time. This means that any sidequests he undertakes will reset, along with any dungeon progress he has made that doesn’t include getting the dungeon item or beating the dungeon boss (dungeon maps, compasses, small keys, and boss keys all disappear when the three day period starts over, and all unlocked doors become locked again, etc.).

Since Majora’s Mask was released for the Nintendo 64 two years after Ocarina of Time, Nintendo opted to reuse assets from Ocarina. At first glance, this would seem to be a lazy, cost-cutting measure on Nintendo’s part – and while it may be true that Nintendo was trying to save money, they certainly justify it in game. The NPCs from Hyrule are all in Termina, but they all play new roles here – none of the characters (except for, possibly, the Skull Kid) recognize Link from his last adventure. So the Cucco Lady from Kakariko is now the proprietor of the Stock Pot Inn, Talon is now the bartender at the Milk Bar in Clock Town, Koume and Kotake (who were actually bosses from Ocarina) now run businesses in the Southern Swamp, and there are plenty more. Of course, none of these characters are actually FROM Hyrule; they just look like the characters Link saw in his last adventure. So why bring this up? Because whenever the player sees a familiar character, they are usually doing something that they would not have been doing in Ocarina – like Koume selling potions to Link, for example – which is yet another way Majora's Mask unsettles it's players.

So what does Link have to do in this land called Termina? Well, to stop the moon from crashing, he has to go to the dungeons in the four cardinal directions and awaken the gods that are imprisoned in them. That’s right – there are only four dungeons in Majora’s Mask, and while they are fantastic dungeons, it should be noted that Majora's Mask isn’t a particularly long Zelda game. To get to all these dungeons, though, Link has to obtain different masks to transform into different races – he starts with the Deku Mask, and then gets the Goron Mask and the Zora Mask. Each of these races give Link different powers, and none of them use Link’s sword to attack. The Deku can shoot bubbles which can cause a little damage, and it can also spin attack to hit enemies, in addition to being able to fly when using a Deku Flower. Goron Link can roll into a ball and, using magic power, make spikes jut out from his body and start rolling at high speeds to crash into enemies and fly off jumps. Zora Link can swim at high speeds and generate an energy shield, while also being able to use two of his fins like boomerangs.

Obtaining these masks, however, is sad and unsettling every time. The Deku Mask is obtained when Link is transformed into a Deku at the beginning of the game, and it initially seems as though that’s it – but before he reaches Termina, Link goes past a very sad looking tree. During the ending credits, a character known as the Deku Butler is seen in front of this tree, crying – implying that this tree is his son, and that his son died so Link could transform into the Deku. When Link obtains the Goron mask, it is after hearing the sad tale of the dead Goron hero, Darmani, who died trying to save his people. Darmani was not able to stop Goron Village from freezing over, and his regrets carry over to his death – he ceases to be a ghost so Link can turn into him and hopefully put an end to his pain. Link finds a dying Zora floating in the Great Bay and pushes him to shore, where he tells Link his story, how he was trying to save his girlfriend’s Zora eggs, but couldn’t due to being unable to traverse the now extremely cloudy sea. Link watches him die after hearing his story. He receives the Zora mask, and then proceeds to (in what I’m sure is a series first and last) bury the dead body, and erect a rudimentary gravestone. It is surprising how morbid a Zelda game from the year 2000 on the Nintendo 64 can be, isn’t it?

Speaking of morbidity, the most involved sidequest in the game is particularly heart-wrenching. It takes Link the entirety of the three day cycle to complete it. This sidequest involves reuniting the lovers Kafei and Anju. It appears that the Skull Kid transformed Kafei into a child and later, a thief stole his wedding mask, and Kafei goes into hiding because he promised Anju he would meet her on the day of the carnival with the wedding mask in hand. Link first has to spend a day to locate Kafei for Anju, exchange letters and items between the two for a day, then follow Kafei to the thief’s hideout on the last day to complete a quick set of puzzles to obtain the lost mask for Kafei. Once this is done, there is literally six in-game hours (which translates to roughly six minutes in real time) before the moon crashes into Termina, and Link must go meet the two characters who finally reunite a mere hour before the moon comes crashing down. What is interesting about this sidequest is that while Link can play the Song of Time and escape certain death, Kafei and Anju cannot. They meet up just to be together when they both die. This is certainly touching, in a way, but again, fairly morbid for a Nintendo game.

As the game draws to a close and Link summons the four gods to stop the Skull Kid, the gods prevent the moon from crashing. But Majora’s Mask drops the Skull Kid’s body like a rag doll and enters the moon’s mouth. Link follows the mask into the moon and unexpectedly finds himself in a meadow. It is a huge, sunny, bright green field, populated by butterflies and bright green grass, with a giant tree in the middle on top of a slight hill. Around the tree are running four kids, each wearing one of the four masks Link obtained in the dungeons. When Link talks to them, they tell them they want to play hide and seek and teleport Link to a small dungeon with puzzles based on each of Link’s forms. When they have all been found, the last kid teleports Link to the last boss.

Majora’s Mask itself is fought in a flamboyant rainbow colored room. It has three forms – Majora’s Mask, Majora’s Incarnation, and Majora’s Wrath. Majora’s Mask floats around the room and tries to spin into Link. Majora’s Incarnation flamboyantly dances around the room while making strange, childlike noises. Majora’s Wrath tries to whip Link to death. Each form is fairly easy, both with the ultimate Fierce Deity Mask (obtained by finding all the other masks in the game) and without. When Link finishes off Majora’s Wrath, the game ends, and the fate of the Termina inhabitants is shown (depending, of course, on how many people the player helps and how many masks they got). For the most part, the fate of the characters of this game end up fairly positive, with the possible exception of two: the Deku Butler mentioned earlier, and Link himself.

Link wakes up outside Clock Town, in Termina Field. He sees the Skull Kid, without Majora’s Mask, looking up at the giant gods. The Skull Kid realizes the gods hadn’t forgotten about him and begins crying out of shame for the acts he committed. He then asks Link to be his friend. The Happy Mask Salesman has gotten Majora’s Mask back, and apparently, the evil left it. He asks Link, “Shouldn’t you be heading home, too?” As he walks away, Tatl talks to Link. “Well, both of us have gotten what we were after… So this is where you and I part ways, isn’t it? You know… it was kind of fun. Well, it’s almost time for the carnival to begin… So, why don’t you just leave and go about your business? The rest of us have a carnival to go to.” Pretty cold, for what Link and Tatl have been through together. Link gets on Epona, takes one look at yet another fairy friend he must part with, and rides off. To herself, Tatl quietly thanks Link as he rides away. The carnival starts, and the fate of the rest of the Termina characters is shown. It should be noted that even Tatl notices how Link doesn't really belong in Termina - rather than want him to attend the carnival with everyone, she tells him to leave.

To end the game, the scene showing the Deku Butler crying in front of what is presumably his dead son’s body is shown. Then, the scene shifts back to Link. He is back on Epona, back in the forest he started the game in, and he looks tired again. He rides off, and a tree stump is shown with a drawing of Link, the Skull Kid, Tatl and Tael, and the four giants. “The End” appears on screen, along with a brief ocarina solo of Saria’s Song from Ocarina of Time – probably to imply that Link is lost again, as Saria’s Song is the song of the Lost Woods.

There are more examples to prove my point, but a pattern throughout this article should be apparent by now – that the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a game about subverting expectations. Not just about subverting the expectations of Zelda as a series, either, but of video games as a whole. Majora’s Mask is proof that video game sequels do not have to be more of the same. That what is familiar can easily become creepy and unsettling. That saving the world can be personal, too. Although they are enjoyable games in their own right, it’s too bad the Zelda games that have come out since Majora’s Mask haven’t dared to be as unsettling and interesting as Majora’s Mask.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Spirit Tracks, pt. 3 - General Bitchery

I knew I would get sick of this stupid train eventually.

I've had this Zelda game for 11 days! There is absolutely no reason I why I should not have plowed through it at least a few days ago. Yet, there that train sits, the single reason why I can't bring myself to play the game for more than an hour or so at a time.

I ran into the same problem with Wind Waker and (especially!) Phantom Hourglass. The boats and trains and whatever Nintendo comes up with next to replace a traditional Zelda overworld simply do not work. They don't fit! Every time I think to myself "Oh man that dungeon was awesome, I can't wait to get to the next one" I have to ride the stupid train for twenty minutes. And it is boring as hell! I do not understand why Nintendo puts this crap in the games - just sick of creating a typical overworld? You do not have to pack the overworld with a bunch of crap you guys! Just let me run my ass across Hyrule field or whatever. Or let me run most of the time, and occasionally ride a train or occasionally ride a boat! That would be awesome.

But no, everyone. God forbid Nintendo give a full budget to their handheld teams. And I must say - the graphics of this Zelda are underwhelming, now that I've stared at them long enough. The textures are repetitive and boring - the grass pattern is basically just green with a few sprites of individual grass blades tossed here and there. I already bitched about the dungeon design, and when you view any of the 3-D models up close they look horrible. Final Fantasy III and IV for DS looked much better - the 3-D models were still a little janky, but at least the world design was much more interesting!

And other than a very few standouts (like two tracks), the music is underwhelming as well. I don't need a full orchestra by any means, but for god sakes just compose something interesting!

I want to like these games so much and I'm trying but dammit it is so hard to when they are so lazy with their design.

Click here for my second post about Spirit Tracks. Click here for the first one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Spirit Tracks, pt. 2 - Regarding Cohesiveness

I realized why the dungeons in Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks feel somewhat off to me. Why they don't seem as sprawling or as cohesive as the dungeons in the older top down Zeldas.

When you entered a room in any of the non-3D Zelda games, the screen locked in such a way so you could not see any other rooms in the dungeon on the screen, no matter where you placed Link. In both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, however, you can see any area of any room of any dungeon if Link can get up against the wall. I imagine that this was done out of necessity because of the controls - it would be harder to make Link move around if he was constantly on the very edge of the screen, with your hand covering most of the screen.

Yet, I'm unsatisfied with how I can see other rooms in the dungeon so easily. I know it sounds like I want the game to be more "realistic" and that isn't the case. I mean, this is a game that breaks the 4th wall unabashedly. It just bothers me that as I run around a dungeon, I can see so much else - I wonder if they would have blocked out other rooms with blank screen if I would have felt the same way.

Hard to say. Anyway, my progress thus far in Spirit Tracks - I just beat the second dungeon and int it I picked up the Boomerang, which controls just like it did in Phantom Hourglass - which is cool because it was fun in that game. One thing I've noticed so far in Spirit Tracks, though, is that you actually have to use items from other dungeons! I used the whirlwind thing several times in the second dungeon. In fact, it served as a propeller of sorts for when I was floating on a block in water! Sure, it isn't the first time that has been done in a Zelda game (the Deku Leaf in Wind Waker would be my guess for the first), it is still a good sign that Nintendo reeled in this Zelda and tried to really improve it over Phantom Hourglass.

Click here for my first Spirit Tracks post.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Initial Impressions of the Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is an enormous improvement over Phantom Hourglass. Rereading my previous posts about Phantom Hourglass and Minish Cap really point out why. That central temple that you have to go through multiple times with a timer counting down, while also spending most of your time dodging invincible enemies?

Well, they took that concept, and cut out all the crap. Most importantly, there is no more timer - you still go through a big dungeon, but so far, I have not had to play through the same part twice (For reference, I've played through two sections of the tower). There are still those big Phantom guys that are invincible, but once you collect enough "Spirit Tears" your sword powers up and you can attack them - and then Zelda can possess them. You then control two characters - you can seamlessly switch back and forth to solve puzzles, such as having Zelda's invincible Phantom character carry Link over lava to hit switches. Or to have Zelda's Phantom character converse with another Phantom so Link can sneak by - which I always find amusing.

I have not had too much experience with new items yet - the item you get in the first dungeon involves you blowing into the microphone to send a whirlwind flying in whatever direction you're aiming. It has had some fairly interesting, if not totally straightforward puzzles so far. I haven't yet encountered a puzzle as awesome as the one in Phantom Hourglass though where you have to copy a map from the top screen onto the bottom screen, and the only way to do it is to physically close your DS. But I'm not that far into the game yet, so who knows!

The item I think is awesome, though, is the Pan Flute in the game. You hold your stylus on the screen to bring the Flute up to Link's lips, then you blow into the mic to play a note - you play different notes by sliding the Flute around the bottom screen to blow into different holes. It is a spin on the Ocarina from the N64 games, and frankly it is a blast to play. (It helps that the first song you learn to play anywhere comes with one of the cutest - that's right, cutest - animations I've seen in any game ever.)

Some of the same complaints I had about Phantom Hourglass still exist here, unfortunately. For one, you still don't collect individual heart pieces like in other Zelda games - which would be fine, but there are too few to collect, making for a less expansive game, in my opinion. It doesn't help that a few of them are absolutely wasted because they were put up for sale in a freaking store!

I am still, as always, torn regarding the overworld travel. All these cel-shaded Zeldas have their own unique way of traveling about - Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass had their own spins on sailing, and Spirit Tracks has the train. The train seems more... focused, I guess, than the sailing from the other two games, but it still doesn't ring true to Zelda like a regular overworld and Epona would. It's not as if they couldn't fit an entire overworld on a DS cart anyway. The train is kind of fun, and since you are on rails, Nintendo is able to make each individual train ride seem more interesting and unique than the boat rides in Phantom Hourglass. In that game, you could take whatever route you wanted, so they just threw a squid at you every once in a while. So every time you'd sail (which was quite a bit) you'd sit there for like five minutes, shooting a squid every three.

Buckets of fun.

At least with the train, they have specific puzzles and stuff they can throw at you even during regular train rides taken not within the main narrative of the game. So, on one level, the train kind of sucks, but at the same time, at least it is worlds better than the sailboat.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bitchery: Shining Force II

There are 15 pieces of Mithril hidden in the entire world of Shining Force II. Finding most of them is ridiculously obtuse, because some of them are hidden in random mountain ranges on the main map, with nothing unique about them.

They are important to find, though, because if you want to pimp out your final party with the best weapons, well then you better have at least 12 pieces of Mithril because you have to have the Dwarven Blacksmith forge them for you.

Oh! But to get to the Dwarven Blacksmith, you need the Dry Stone, found in a nondescript fire pit halfway through the game! And it is not explained what it does. Ever. So to get to the blacksmith, you need to use this "Dry Stone" on a river, so that particular part of the river dries up and parts like the Red Sea (the game gives you no hint whatsoever to do this), and then you can enter his town.

Then, after all that, you have to give a piece of mithril to the blacksmith, and he will ask you who you would like him to make a weapon for, and you must also hand over 5000 gold.

The kicker? The little sonofabitch has the sack to make whatever weapon he wants, so long as the person hes making it for can equip it! There are Mithril weapons that are the best weapons in the game, and then there are Mithril weapons that aren't even as good as the ones you likely already have equipped!

Guess which weapons are rarer? If you guessed "the good ones," you were right! You are more likely to get a piece of crap weapon, after all that work you have done throughout the entire game than to get something halfway decent, much less the best weapon in the game. So, what do you do? You save the game, and keep resetting until you get the weapon you want.

That isn't too bad, right? Oh, but it is! The nearest save point is basically three screens away from the little dwarf bastard you need to talk to in order to get Mithril weapons, and once you hand over a piece of Mithril, you have to exit the town, re-enter, and walk your Hero ass all the way back to him! And sometimes, a NPC will walk right in your way, and you have to wait for that stupid asshole to move before you can keep going, and after all that, you get a Critical Sword, again! Now you get to start the whole process over because that is the worst sword the fucker can give you!

I think it would be fair to say that after I had found all those pieces of Mithril, the stupid Dry Stone, and how to use the stupid thing to get to the stupid town itself, I should be able to say to the little fuck "Hey, here is a piece of Mithril. Here's 5000 gold. Now make me a Gisarme, or I will burn you alive you little dwarf piece of shit! Don't want to burn alive? Oh, okay. You see this little phoenix guy here? Yeah, well he shoots tornadoes, you dick. Prefer something else? Okay, the rest of my guys here all have really sharp objects they like to poke people with. Sure, they may not be as sharp as ones you can make, you little prick, but I don't think you'd appreciate the distinction much when you are being crucified by twelve people at once! ...Oh! Thank you for the Gisarme! I didn't even have to go on a pointless walk for it! Now I can go about my business and finish the damn game without having to wander around this stupid place with the worst music in the game for fifteen hours to get a stupid sword that boosts my attack by like ten or whatever.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Muramasa is Great, Backtracking without Purpose is Not

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an interesting game. It elicits interesting responses from me. I usually don't stare at awe of how pretty graphics are - but this game makes me do that. I've found myself stopping several times to look at and appreciate the beautiful art and animation.

None of your "realistic" looking games have ever made me do that - I'm looking at you, Call of Duty, Gears of War, etc.

The battle system calls to mind a sort of 2-D Kingdom Hearts style, without the strange menu system. Of course, the game being 2-D avoids the main problem I and many others had with Kingdom Hearts - a crappy camera! Also, compared to Kingdom Hearts, the enemies in Muramasa are a treat - they are full of personality and animation. You know how many different kinds of enemies the great Castlevania games have? Muramasa seems to have as many as that, with the added bonus of being completely original.

So I'm slowly getting the hang of the combo system. There are a ton of different swords in this game, and although I am not very far, they all seem very different and seem to have unique combos. I tend to prefer the fast swords that let me dance all around the screen, so far, but we'll see how some of the more powerful slow swords turn out.

But my god, what is with the backtracking? As much as I love having the luxury of looking at the awesome background graphics in this game, it is damn tiring spending as much time as you do going back across all the ground you have already covered. It's hard for me to say, too, whether or not this would be helped if they include random battles - it probably wouldn't help very much, honestly. It'd probably frustrate me more. But there has to be a middle ground - how about a warp? Or the ability to let me go to the big map screen when I complete an area and sort of let me "warp" around? Every time I beat a boss, I have to put the game down because I know I'll have to spend like 10-15 minutes wandering through empty screens to get to the next area.

The story so far is confusing. I believe it is intentional, but regardless of whether or not the writers wanted me to be confused on purpose, I still don't enjoy it. Something about a soul, trying to get somewhere, or something, and like another soul is forced out of its body and it follows it around, and some girl with her boobs hanging out is helping you, I don't know. It all seems somewhat dumb. Plus, the voice acting is all in Japanese, which I'm told is for the weeaboo audience who prefer it that way - I'll never get that. Unless you speak Japanese, why favor that language for voice acting? You say its quality? But most people don't speak the language - how can you tell if it is quality or not?

Anyway, I'm only a few hours in at this point. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the game soon enough.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Subtleties: Shining Force II

I would like to talk about subtleties today.

Video game narrative has not yet had Shakespearean-level storytelling. Nor has it had Citizen Kane-level visual metaphor or anything like that. As has been discussed elsewhere (more elegantly than I could, as well), video games are a medium still very much in their infancy. So until they have their big moment that we could point to and say, "This is why video games are art," we have to make do with tiny moments that hint at their potential.

And sometimes, you have to look pretty hard. There are the big moments, the ones that most of the internet will bring up when talking about this topic, like bringing down the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, or perhaps the courtroom set piece scene in Chrono Trigger. And those are good examples! I don't have any quite that grand today, but what I do have is a subtle example of why I love video games and why they strike me as so different from traditional forms of media expression.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been playing a lot of the old Genesis RPG, Shining Force II, lately. It is not a game known for its wholly original story - in fact, it is quite generic in that respect. Cliché, actually. And I am not going to be pulling any examples from the game about how its story deviates from the norm at all, because honestly, it really doesn't.

But within the cliché story, there are some subtleties that strike me as interesting, to say the least. I am near the end of the game at this point; maybe seven or eight battles from the final battle. My army just stole the ancient flying Nazca ship and flew over the ocean, and was shot down on Grans Island by the greater devil Geshp and his Prism Flowers. What strikes me as interesting is Geshp thought my army would die when we got shot down - so when we ran into him, he had to hastily assemble an army of devils to try to stop us. Every battle in the game up until this point has had my enemies strewn strategically around the map, while all of my characters start in a bunch in one place, because at the start of most battles, my characters are ambushed. But in this battle, I surprised my enemy - and, sure enough, they all start the battle in a big, disorganized bunch like I usually do.

This is an extremely small example of how videogames are subtle in the ways they present their narrative - and this example comes from an extremely clichéd narrative in a 1993 Sega Genesis RPG, as well! This is not an example someone would bring up to argue that videogames are "art," of course. This is just one of the ways I think video games are unique in their presentation when compared to other mediums. The battle system had always started one way in Shining Force II, then it is changed for this one battle to reflect the surprise of the enemy. It's subtle, but interesting when you notice it.

Of course, none of this matters to most people. I think when videogames have their own "Rosebud" moment, examples like this small one will become more commonplace and the medium will finally hit its stride. Until then, I will appreciate the subtleties.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pegasus Knights are Worth Waiting For

From the end of my last post on this blog: "Hopefully I don't let the blog be idle again for 4 months." Yeah... it's been over a year since then. So much for that.

Thing is, I really enjoyed doing it, and have been quite busy (read: school) since then, so I never had the chance to continue. (Well, I probably had the chance, but I kind of forgot about this blog until now.)

I have played a lot of games, though. In May and June of this year, I played two PS2 RPGs - Persona 3: FES and Persona 4.

Ladies and gentlemen, they were fantastic. Persona 4 is probably on my top ten list of favorite games - and that list has been fairly static since about 2000 when Majora's Mask first came out. Persona 4 is definitely my favorite PS2 game, at the very least.

But it has been a while since I've played those games. And I will likely play through them again in due time, and write more in depth about them when they are more fresh in my mind. For this post, I will talk about an old standby, another game definitely on my top ten list: the Genesis strategy RPG Shining Force II.

Shining Force II was my first RPG, so it is likely that I am fairly biased when it comes to discussing its quality. I can see why some people might say it's story could be considered weaker than the one in the original Shining Force, but I don't care, I still prefer it. There are a few typos in the game, which do annoy the holy hell out of me, though.

But the battle system in this game is exactly how I want my strategy RPGs to be: nice and light. The closest battle system to Shining Force II is the Fire Emblem series (for the most part - it is a little more complicated and deaths are permanent, so those games aren't as replayable to me). But SFII does not have the Tactics Ogre problem where you have to position your guys behind or to the side of the enemy in order to do more damage or anything stupid like that - you go up to the guy you want to fight, and you attack him or use magic on him or whatever. The strategy in the game comes from who you have fight who, and when and where - but not to ridiculous levels.

Anyway, I've beaten this game several times, but in the past, I always sort of beat it the same way, using the same characters, promoting them the same way, etc. This time, however, I decided to max out my characters as much as possible, and I discovered something about the character Chester: I prefer to let him wait to be promoted to a Pegasus Knight, because he is fantastic when he is overleveled.


I got him to level 28 unpromoted before I finally got to Pacalon and got the Pegasus Wing. When I promoted him, I replayed a battle a few times to level him up to everyone else's level, and now his stats are fairly ridiculous compared to everyone else. He doesn't have the highest attack power (strangely, Slade does, although I'm okay with that), nor does he have the highest defense (Jaha does, as usual). He does, however, have the highest agility on my team, so he always goes first, and his HP is very high as well. He is incredibly well rounded and I love using him, as a flying character is always good to have.

As far as everyone else goes, I got them all to level 23 before promoting them. I did this because I hated getting 1 EXP for every kill I got and didn't feel like playing battles over and over again to level them up. Chester was idle for quite a few battles before I promoted him to the awesomeness he is now.

So anyway, I'm heading to Moun right now, and am currently in the battle where you eventually get Jaro, who I also might use because Taya sucks and Kazin already is amazing. The fact that I've been playing this game since my childhood and still find new ways to get through it amazes me, and proves to me why it is so good.